On Monday 30th January, hundreds of Saint Andreans marched down South Street, waving banners and chanting slogans, to protest President Trump’s ban on Muslim immigration.
On Tuesday 31st January, a couple of dozen St Andreans met in Aikmans to have a chat about politics. It was cramped stuffy and uncomfortable, and more inspiring than a dozen marches.
A bit of context for the uninitiated. The newly formed St Andrews chapter of Republicans Overseas had, by sheer coincidence, planned its inauguration party for the day after millions participated in global anti-Trump marches. The Socialist Society (the organisers of the anti-Trump march) got wind of this, and planned to protest the event. In the 24 hours between the protest being planned and the beginning of the inauguration party, events gathered their own momentum. One side talked about “crypto-fascists” and “died in the wool right-wing extremists”, the other decried “witch hunts” and “leftist threats to free speech.”
Things had reached fever pitch by the time evening rolled around, with the Republicans gathered in Aikmans while the protesters planned their next move in the St Andrews Brewing Company. I don’t think anyone was expecting pitched battles on Market Street, but there was a definite anxiety hanging over both pubs as both groups prepared for confrontation. Full disclosure, I was only there in the hope somebody would start throwing punches and in doing so provide me with a scoop.
So, when a crew of leftists rocked up to the entrance to tell the manager (who’d been waiting nervously outside) that they only wanted to talk, it felt immensely anticlimactic. Still, I decided I’d been waiting outside in the cold too long to go home without at least entering Aikman’s, so I followed the rabble of left-wing scum into the den of red-trousered fascists.
I don’t regret it.
It’s a cliché but the reason we come to university is to expose ourselves to different points of view. If that’s the case, then what happened in the cellar of Aikman’s was the distilled essence of the university experience. There’s nothing quite like watching a radical leftist in faux fur and a crop-top respectfully discuss the refugee crisis with a Trump supporter dressed in a tan suit and elephant-decorated tie. Or seeing Nigel Farage fans speak to fans of Noam Chomsky about the effect of economic decline in the Midwest, and actually agree on things. Or hearing a dozen wildly different people have conversations about wildly different political topics, in which the most common phrase was “What do you think of…?”
Those five words summed up everything that was best about the night. The efforts of organisers on both sides (too many to name here but special mention should go to Aikman’s manager Malcom Ritchie) were instrumental in keeping the peace, but it was just as much the intellectual courage and curiosity of people willing to engage in viewpoints directly opposed to their own that lead to such a spontaneous display of passionate but good-natured and ultimately constructive debate.
Now, at the end of the day, all this was was a chat about politics, and I’m sure you’re questioning why I bothered writing this. I’d simply answer this – the current state of western political discourse, where screaming insults has replaced reasoned debate needs to change. A pub in East Fife is as good a place as any for that to begin.